Risking my neck for nothing that matters
by Jim Knipfel
Sometimes you feel that first breeze in the morning, and you just know that nothing good's going to come from getting out of bed.
It was a Sunday. Sundays are always bad. This last Sunday, though, Christ, I don't know what the hell was going on there. Things seemed all right at first. I got some typing done, got the stereo to play two CDs in a row. (Even if they were the same CD, it was still quite an accomplishment.) So when I headed out, I was feeling okay. I moseyed on down to the bank, checked the balance on the machine, found that I still had two digits in front of the decimal point, and withdrew a few bucks. Shoved them in my pocket, forgot about them.
Stopped by the newsstand to pick up a paper and some smokes. After it was rung up, I reached into my pocket and pulled out what I assumed to be a ten dollar bill. And in a way, it was. It was a ten dollar bill. Legal tender in every sense of the word. Except, maybe, for the fact that it was hot pink.
The Paki behind the counter looked at the bill, then looked at me.
"What am I supposed to do with this? I can't do anything with this. Even if I take it, nobody else will. Take it to the bank."
"They're the folks who just gave it to me."
I still had some other bills in my pocket, but I needed those for beer, so I put the paper back and just took the smokes. Further on down the street, after checking my watch to make sure it was past twelve (it was even two minutes after!), I stopped in the grocery store to buy a couple sixers.
As I wrapped my fingers around the cardboard handle, an intense, howling pain shot through the meat on my right hand, just beneath my little finger.
"Fuck!" I shouted, maybe a touch too loudly for a Sunday afternoon grocery store. But nobody seemed to care. I looked down at my hand. There was no blood, no obvious splinter rupturing my flesh, no squashed wasp laying atop one of the bottles, no obvious cause. But the pain was still there, and, if anything, it was getting worse. Like napalm coursing through the veins, working it's way down my arm, headed, eventually, towards my heart and brain.
I paid for the beer as best's I could and headed home, not daring to look at my hand. I could feel it swelling up like a big ol' water balloon. Or in this case, I guess, a pus balloon.
It wasn't until I got home and put the beer away that I dared take a peek. It was bloating up, that's for damn sure; and the pain was...well, it was really something. I considered some more home surgery--a little poke and squeeze--but reconsidered. I wasn't drunk enough yet. So I popped a beer, gobbled some pills and held the afflicted area under cold water.
Damn thing is, it was my typing hand, too (I type one-handed, and one of these days I'm really going to regret it).
I decided to hide out for most the rest of the day--at least until I had to head up to Williamsburg for a little ho-dag that afternoon. Let the swelling go down, let the sick winds blow on by.
By the time it was time to leave, I could barely move my hand. The swelling had gone down, mostly, so that was good, I guess. I just couldn't flex it at all. That wasn't very good. Still, I gathered myself together and headed out. My pal Sue's birthday was the social event of, if nothing else, at least the week, and I wasn't about to miss it.
And much to my surprise, the sick winds stayed at bay that afternoon. The alcohol eased the pain. It wasn't until I decided to head back southways that something broke, and that sick tornado spun me around in a bad way.
As usual, I transferred to the wrong train at the wrong stop. Taking the R back into my neighborhood after sundown left me with a bad stretch to cover before I had any worthwhile light to work with.
Along Ninth St. between 4th and 5th Aves., the sidewalk is not only blanketed in utter darkness, but it's also littered with obstacles--trash cans, police barricades, stone wall eruptions, open gates--most of which I've come to know intimately over the past several years. But that night, someone decided to throw a bit of a ringer into the mix.
I caught sight of the figure in silhouette some ten or fifteen yards in front of me, backlit by the McDonald's entrance. I started taking some defensive moves early; slowing down, sliding over to the left, away from the road, away from him, up against the stone walls and the gates. Not out of fear, mind you; just to avoid running into him. Up until that last, sickening moment, it seemed okay, like I was going to get past him without incident.
It was right about there, mere yards from a saving pool of light, that my feet got all wrapped up in the spokes and pedals of the bicycle that the silhouette had laid across the sidewalk. I was so busy focusing on him, on trying to get around this shadow, that I paid no attention to where my feet were going.
I went down across the bike, face first into the pavement, ripping open my palms (again), cracking my shins (again).
"Shit." I muttered as I lay there, tangled up in twisted metal tubing, disgusted with myself, humiliated again. Feeling all the world like everything that is loathsome and drooping and decayed. Then the sillhouette's friend drifted out of the shadows.
"Lookit what that motherfucker did!"
"Sorry about that," I muttered into the dirt as I started unwrapping my legs, seeing if there was any immediate, obvious damage. I couldn't tell, but everything seemed to be holding together.
"He wasn't watching where he was goin'--but he better start, or he gonna get hurt."
"I was watching where I was going," I offered. "I just wasn't seeing where I was going. And I am hurt." You stupid sonofabitch, I added silently, just for myself.
"Lookit that--I can't ride this anymore--now I'll hafta tighten everything up! An' it's all his fault."
The first foot swung sharp into my lower back. Anther caught me under the right arm. The both of them got into it, kicking my legs, my knees, my stomach, my back, while I tried to roll away from the swinging feet and the frame of a bicycle lying across the sidewalk. Why in the fuck was the bike lying across the fucking sidewalk? Why couldn't they've just propped it up against something? A tree, maybe. Christ.
I wasn't thinking about the boots landing in my ribs anymore. All I could think was, "Who could possibly be so damnably stupid?"
After awhile--it couldn't've been too long--they gave up and ran away, leaving me there with the bike. Maybe its because I didnt give them the satisfaction of screaming or yelling for the cops. Goddamn bike. At least they left my pretty face alone. Probably took one look and figured I'd have enough hell pounded into it already.
I'm not a tough guy. Used to be. Ten years ago, with enough speed in me, I was really something. Now, no. I was a tough guy for too long. Now, what? Now I'm battered and broken up, drunkenly tripping over bikes and tree roots and garbage cans, lying there like a goddamn fool, each breath reeking of my failure of nerve, wondering when I was going to start tasting blood, prey to fucking kids.
I rolled over and dragged myself up on my hands and knees. "Well, they didn't take anything. Shouldda given 'em that fucking pink ten dollar bill, made 'em happy." I flopped a blind, crippled, bee-stung hand around and found my hat.
I sat there a second, aching for a drink. I wasn't in pain. I didn't feel anything at all, not with all those wires of my cerebral cortex, frazzled and shattered, dangling behind the hopeless eyes like a ripped and bloody hunk of knotted hair. After a bit, I dragged myself to my feet and hobbled the last six blocks home. My ribs were gonna hurt tomorrow.
Goddamn kids. Goddamn William Burroughs.
Copyright Jim Knipfel. Published originally in the NYPress. Illustration by Russell Christian. All rights reserved.
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